Science Fiction

Farrago – Part 1

They had a new girl working the shoe rental. As Henry paid the twenty bucks for his three rounds (the owner liked him, liked that he was a cop, so he gave Henry a discount), the girl glided in front of the row of shoes, passing it over with the buzzing decontamination stick, the glow staining her hands pale blue.

Henry didn’t need to rent any shoes — he had his own pair, specially made, tucked away in his bag — but he lingered for a moment at the shoe counter anyway, until the girl glanced up, strands of her blonde hair falling across her eyes, which were, startlingly, the exact color of honey.

“What size?” she asked.

Her voice had a low thrumming quality to it. Her words reverberated off the side of her throat.  Henry shook his head, stammered a little.

“Sorry, I don’t — got my own.”

He jerked his bag up. The girl blinked at it and shrugged and then passed the decontamination stick over another set of shoes. Henry dragged his hand across the top his hair and trudged over to his lane. It was a Tuesday night in November, icy rain slicking across the city, and the alley was nearly empty. Just Henry at one end and a pair of teenage girls at the other end. He sat down on the bench and ordered a beer from the touchscreen and waited for his partner to show.

The last time he went to the cyberneticist they’d told him to lay off the alcohol, that it was corroding the bits of metal and plastic lining his stomach, and also they hadn’t exactly upgraded his liver, but he’d never listened to doctors before and he wasn’t going to listen to cyberneticists now. He traded out his scuffed black boots for bowling shoes. At the other end of the alley, pins clattered against the hardwood, and the two teenage girls shrieked and hollered. Henry leaned back over the bench. He craned his neck. The girl at the shoe counter slid in and out of view, her head bent low, the glow from the decontamination stick tracing the movement of her hands.

“Hello, Henry.”

Henry jumped. “Felton,” he said. “I didn’t see you standing there.”

Felton’s two glowing eyes brightened and dimmed. “Well, you appear pretty distracted.”

Henry chose not to respond. He stood up, pulled out his bowling ball — weighted for the bones of his steel-enforced arm, the finger holes measured against the span of his fingers and laser-cut for precision, the whole thing dyed dark green at his request — from its bag.

“Can’t start ’til I get my beer,” he said.

“Oh yes. I’m aware.”

Henry set his ball on the return and Felton did the same with one of Henry’s old cast-off balls — the in-house ones were all too light for him. As if on cue, the server-bot whirred out of the doorway to the lounge, a single bottle of beer on its tray. Felton followed its trajectory across the alley. He had told Henry once, at a bar, how he hated that the serverbots didn’t speak and Henry’d had no idea how to respond.

Henry and Felton were partners as cops, working together on Vice. They were bowling partners because Henry needed someone to bowl against now that he’d been upgraded. The guys down at the station kicked him out of the intramural league after the procedure, saying it wasn’t fair, he had too much of an advantage. The upgrades were supposed to get Henry out of Vice but all they did was get him out of the bowling league.

Felton bowled first and knocked over three pins. He wasn’t very good. Henry suspected he didn’t care enough to try, but he gave him pointers anyway.

“You need to swing your arm back more,” Henry said. He gestured with his beer bottle as he spoke. “Guide the ball with your thumb.” Felton rotated his head around and dimmed his eyes and didn’t respond.

Henry rolled a strike and swigged his beer in celebration. He looked over at the shoe rental, trying to be casual. The girl leaned across the counter. She wore her hair teased up and the lights caught on it so that her long narrow face appeared framed by a shimmering halo. Her hair made her look sophisticated, like she was about to leave for a holiday party. She stared at the score monitor hanging above the lanes but didn’t seem to really sae it.

“You’re being obvious,” said Felton as he picked up his ball from the return.

Henry laughed. He ordered another beer. “Like you know anything about it.”

Felton’s ball landed in the gutter. “I know you should talk to her instead of stare at her.”

Henry drank the last dregs of his beer because because he didn’t have anything to say to that. Felton knew more about Henry than he should. He knew about Melanie, for example. The commissioner had warned Henry not to get too friendly — “Even if you are part robbie now,” she said — but it was tough, riding around with the thing everyday. Sitting with him during the stakeouts. Teaching him how to bowl. You had to talk about something.

Felton wasn’t even one of the ones that sort of look like people, although he wore clothes like one. He was sleek and silver and jerked around sometimes, especially when the temperatures dropped below freezing. His eyes lit up and while this mouth did move, the movement didn’t always synch up with his words. The commissioner said witnesses would let themselves get questioned by a robot, as long as they knew for certain. As long as they didn’t think the city was tricking them.

“But we still need to have a human around,” she’d said. “For insurance. You know.” This was last summer, the days all long and bright and hot. The box fan she’d set up in her office rattled against the closed window. The edges of papers lifted up from her desk. “Nobody else is willing to work with the thing. You’re the closest we got.”

Henry had wanted to say something. He wanted to point out that he’d only gotten the upgrades because they told him he could make Homicide that way. How they’d given him all that literature about the importance of the department having an edge in this world of robots and mad scientists, genetic engineering and artificial intelligence. But he hadn’t.

Appreciation for Falling Stars a Must

We fell for each other.

Hard.

Like stars, it seemed.

Had I thought about falling stars then, how they’re just bits of space dust burning up as they hit the atmosphere, it likely would have taken some of the Zing! out of my romantic illusions.

But I didn’t think about it.

It was like we’d been made for each other, something I did let myself think even though I knew the cliché was only half true. I was as I’d always been. She, though, she’d been made for me.

By me.

It was a simple enough process. I’d designed every bit of her, filling in all the blanks and boxes on the Realationship™ site. And when I say design I don’t just mean the parts you might think. But everything. Down to the shape of her toes, the curve of her eyebrows.

I remember sitting at the keyboard, my fingers caressing the track pad, working my way through eye color and skin tone. Each drop down menu needed a carefully considered click, like a little nudge, a little push. Each choice opened a window to more, with all of them weighed against the ones that had come before.

And there’d been myself to consider as well–measuring my lips to match against hers, moving my hands in just the right way to see how they’d feel on the small of her back, following the prompts to upload my image so I could see how my brown eyes would reflect her blue. Finished, I’d just needed to click on all the agreements, debit my account, and wait for delivery.

The night I lost her, we lay in the back yard, a blanket between us and the ground. She rested her head on my arm, her blond hair threatening to make me sneeze as it tickled my nose. Our sweat had already begun to dry from the summer breeze, and if I moved my hand just a little I could trace the swell of her breast. It would have been perfect if we had seen a falling star then, but the cloudless sky yielded nothing but familiar constellations.

“What time is it?” she asked.

I’d designed her to disregard the tech she ran on. Occasionally, I’d hear a servo spin somewhere in her body, but if she ever heard the same, she ignored it. And so, though her operating system included a perfectly accurate internal clock, it was instinctive of her to ask me the time or to check the delicate watch I’d given her on our one-month anniversary.

She wasn’t wearing it now. Or anything else.

“Almost ten,” I said after raising my wrist and blocking out part of the sky for a moment.

She seemed to take a second to process the information, then sat up, leaving my right arm and whole right side suddenly cool as the night air touched the skin she’d just been pressed against. I smiled at the sight of her naked back.

“I’m leaving,” she said.

My smile faded.

“Leaving?” I asked, nonplussed. My turn to process.

“You,” she added.

Then she was up. Off the blanket and picking through the clothes scattered on the lawn.

“What do you mean?”

“What I said. I’m leaving you.”

Beasts on the Shore of Light

Keith Suarez emerged from a long, dark tunnel and scuttled across the cardboard-brown regolith of 21 Lutetia toward the sun. His eight tiny feet dug into the grit as he moved at a steady clip over crumbly mounds and deep craters. Keith wasn’t alone on his journey; this was, after all, the vacation season. There were hundreds—thousands—of others pouring out of hidey-holes, crawling away from the cold murk of 21 Lutetia and hunkering down on the surface, their matte black chassis glistening in the radiance as they absorbed all the energy they would need for the rest of the year. If you were to see the mass-migration of artificial crustaceans from above, it would look like a potato infested with mites.

On his way to his little plot of land in the sun, Keith waved an amicable claw at work-mates in the throng and flashed a quick laser “hello” at passing acquaintances, but he never stopped—in part because the animal algorithms that controlled this trek urged him on, but also because he really didn’t have any friends here. This was all simply the Kafkian nightmare that paid the bills; or was it Cronenbergian? Never mind that he spent most of the time as a bug eating dirt and defecating nickel, iron, gold and platinum. This was not a life.

Suddenly, something caught his infrared attention and he turned his eyestalk to get a better view. Someone wasn’t headed for the sunside. They weren’t moving at all. Grudgingly, he overrode the impulse to migrate and made his way against the current of pushy crabs toward the fallen person. In another life, some twenty years ago, Keith had been a pretty decent software engineer (before that career morphed into something incomprehensible and he was forced to retire), so the management of 21 Lutetia had promoted him to maintenances, although his main duty remained to gorge himself on flavorless rocks and shit out precious metals.

He approached the crab sprawled in the shallow frost of a crater and shone a cautious “Do you need help?” light.

“No,” replied the crab in the cosmic ditch.

“Are you sure?” He could tell that six of her long, segmented legs were broken.

“Really, I’m fine. Please, don’t let me stop you from your migration. I’m sure you’re eager to get on with your holiday,” she said, with a faint Slavic tinge to the beam of her voice.

Keith tried to imagine her as a gorgeous blonde with blue almond-shaped eyes, but the reality, rendered in the stark contrast of the intense light of the sun and the utter darkness of the pit, was much too sharp for fantasizing. She looked like every other crab on this rock. He did notice her smooth carapace lacked the pockmarks and scuffs that, over time, gave them their distinctive exteriors. She was recently fabricated and new to all of this.

“Here.” He crawled the few inches into the hole and the temperature dropped to minus one hundred degrees Celsius. “Let me help you.” He examined each of her shattered appendages and repaired what he could on the spot. “How’d this happen, anyway?”

“I fell into this hole,” she said, annoyed.

Keith knew that, between the robustness of the exoskeleton’s design and the microgravity of the asteroid, the fall shouldn’t have caused any damage at all. Deciding not to press the issue, he simply said, “If you spend your holiday down here your batteries will run out and then you’ll be in real trouble.”

She didn’t protest as he awkwardly hefted her broad, flat frame onto his back. He became aware that, aside from registering her weight, he couldn’t feel her on top of him and for the first time in a long time the absence of tactility bothered him.

“Have you been here long?” She asked as he climbed over the lip of the crater and joined the others on their long march. “Your shell is very rough.”

“About five, six years, I’ve lost track of time.” He turned an eye backward to see her bobbing up and down on his wide armor. “Where are you from? You have a nice accent.”

“Kiev, Ukraine.”

“I was going to guess Russia.”

“And you’re American?”

“Yeah, my body is resting somewhere in Atlanta, Georgia.” There was a heavy silence for a moment and he instantly regretted drawing attention to their existential predicament. He let the surge of the others and the ancient biometric subroutines guide him over the dull terrain. There was something reassuring and primal in this parade. This was what life had always been about, since the Paleozoic; horseshoe crabs striving for the shore by the light of the moon.

The Songs of Eridani – Part 2

Read The Songs of Eridani – Part 1 by clicking here.

Chapter 8

We pushed into the jungle above S’uval the next morning, my mind focusing on that special inner spot that had always centered me: I’m nothing but a man who tracks other men for pay; that is what I am, it’s what I do, and nothing else. I seek men who don’t want to be found–whether for reasons of crime, sin, personal disgrace, or some sort of queer, unknown psychological imbalance. Men who have slipped off the net, and have to be netted again so as to answer to others. That is all I am, that is all I need to be.

And I’d dealt with all those types, all those reasons. Yet never had I engaged in a commission as flaky or as suspicious as the one I now pursued. And why did I accept it? I certainly didn’t need the money,
not at this point in my career. For all I cared, Dr. Kline could have fallen down a rat-hole and been eaten by Eridani maggot-analogs.

And yet, I pictured those maggots as wearing the faces of the Directors of the Church of the Holy Psychological Redemption. There was something else going on here, and I was determined to wrench it to the surface.

I removed my field cap and swiped the sweat off my scalp with my hand, turned and waited for Laura and Pete to catch up.

"Hold up a minute, T’aylang! You hanging in there, Pete?"

Pete was panting, trying to catch his breath in the steamy air. "Is the . . . pope . . . a bear?"

"Time for a break, folks," I said.

I was suddenly aware of T’aylang by my side, studying Pete. "This man is not well-adapted to the environment or to the task at hand," he said. "Will we be required to carry him for the balance of the journey?"

"No, just give us a few minutes to rest here, Big Guy. Pete’ll be all right."

I looked sternly at Pete when I said that, hoping to drive that veiled admonition into him.

The Eridani raised his head to an erect vertical position. "This is not a safe place to stop. We are traversing a pyloc’s game trail. Similar to what you refer to in your language as a ‘big cat.’"

"So, are you seeing any?" I unclipped the holster of my firearm.

T’aylang pointed to one of the porters and barked a short command. The other Eridani began to sing, a strange polyphonous song whose ultrasonic overtones made me wince in pain.

"We will persuade any nearby ones to take an afternoon nap. But only a short one. It would be best if your colleague gets his breath back soon, so that we may continue on our way."

Pete gasped and nodded, apparently agreeing in principle with T’aylang.

The Songs of Eridani – Part 1

Chapter 1

Things grew large on epsilon Eridani III, but it was the smallest of creatures that brought us down. We were barely two days into the unexplored jungle that lay to the north of S’uval, the riverside port
village that marked the farthest reach of human colonization on the planet.

I lay prostrate and sweating on the bedroll inside my tent,
hallucinating in the throes of my fever. I was dimly aware of T’aylang,
our native guide, bending over me; his massive, cylindrical head filled
my blurry vision. In my delirium, the rainbow of colors refracting off
his eye-hoop mutated into a medieval painting, one that depicted a
terrifying, insane vision of damned souls in hell.

“I’m dying,” I said weakly.

“Death without redemption is a terrible thing to contemplate, Mr.
Bishop,” T’aylang replied.

“The databulb. Make sure it gets to Kline.” I struggled to withdraw
the bulb from underneath my sweat-drenched shirt, where it hung on a
lanyard around my neck. Somehow it seemed imperative that I not take it
into hell with me. Perhaps my own redemption depended on it.

T’aylang reached down and stilled my fumbling hand. “Best to take
it to him yourself. You will survive, as will your colleagues. Eridani
insinuates herself into your flesh as we speak. She is harsh, but not
always deadly. It is only the first step of your true journey.”

Cinema Verite

Kara slowed her pace through the east hall of the nursing home, checking to make sure Nurse Dearn wasn’t around before rolling her book cart into Mister Jackson’s room. “We don’t have much time, Jackie. Dearn’s on my case.”

“In my day, we’d have called her a harpy.”

“I’d say what my generation calls her, but I don’t want to make you blush.”

Jackie laughed, then waved her closer. “How much did we make this time?”

She handed over a deposit slip. “You’re set for the next five months.”

“It’s strange,” he said, as he pushed the slip into his bedside drawer. “I know I sold something, but I can’t remember what it was.” Biting his lip, he looked up at her. “What was it?”

“I can’t tell you. Those are the rules.”

“I know–I remember that. But…there are holes. It’s disturbing.”

“We can stop whenever you want.”

He shook his head, his lips tightening as he said, “My son was in to see me today. He lost another job. Can’t afford this place anymore. After all I’ve done for him…”

“I’m sorry.”

“I don’t like living here, but it beats sharing a urine-scented double with some drooling idiot down at the county assisted-living center–assisted dying is more like it.”

“That doesn’t mean you have to sell your memories. You’re under no obligation to do this.”

“And my boy is apparently under no obligation to me. Hook me up. See what you find. Tell me what it’s worth.”

“How much of it?”

“Whatever you want to take, hon’. My Alice left me after fifty years of marriage. I’m stuck with this lowlife son while my stockbroker daughter who could buy this place, much less pay my rent, writes me off. Why the hell do I want to remember any of it?”

“Okay. Calm down.” She dug out a pair of small goggles and slipped them over his eyes, fastening the strap, then attaching the wires that linked them to another pair of goggles that she put on.

Jackie moaned as the goggles started to hum. “I hate this part–why can’t you make me forget this, too?”

“I don’t know.” She didn’t understand the tech that went into the goggles. But then, she didn’t have to. Her role was creative–Boris said she made the best memflicks he’d ever seen.

Up to now, she’d been selective, just taking little pieces of Jackie’s memory, but chunks–big, meaty ones–sold so much better. If she did it right, he could be set for life.

She sat down in the chair next to him, immersed in his memories, tapping on the goggles when she wanted to tag a part, using her eyes to set the crop area.

“I’ll love you forever, Alice. I can wait for the wedding night if you’re not ready.”

“I’m coming home, darlin’! We can get married.”

“We’re pregnant? Oh my God, we’re pregnant?”

“We can try again. Sweetheart, we can try again.”

“It’s a boy. I have a son!”

“Take a cigar–pink this time, my friend.”

“What do you mean you’re dropping out of college? Did you get kicked out of this one, too?”

“Why doesn’t she ever call? It’s like I embarrass her.”

“Who is he? Who is he, damn it? No one just leaves. There’s always someone else!”

“Well?” Jackie asked, and he sounded like he was crying.

“It’s good. It’s very good.” There was a big market for this kind of “slice of everyday American life,” a yearning for what was–even if it turned ugly at the end. “I can make you rich, Jackie.” She reached out, found his hand, and squeezed it. “But I’ve told you before: who we are–our personality–it’s a sum of our memories. Once they’re gone, your life will be gone. too.”

“What life? Being an old man, lying here all day?”

“Lying here all day knowing who you are.”

“Not sure that makes it any easier, Kara. Just do it.”

“You’re certain?”

“Leave everything before Alice.” He squeezed her hand. “I had a nice childhood. I had great parents, fun times. And Alice wasn’t my first–I can remember sex before her without any guilt.” He winked at her. “And I’ll still have you, right?”

“Well, if I take it all, you won’t remember me the next time you see me, but we’ll get reacquainted. And I’ll make sure you’re okay.”

“You always have, sweetheart. I’d have been out on my keister a long time ago if you hadn’t come along. You might like the younger me a whole lot better.”

“I doubt that.” She leaned down and kissed his cheek, then whispered in his ear, “I can still just take bits.”

“No. I don’t want to know I’m forgetting things. Just take it all and let me remember my life when it was simpler.” He laid his hand against her cheek. “Did I ever tell you that you look like my first girlfriend?”

“No, you never did.”

“Well, you do.” He let go of her. “Now. Let’s get started. We’re burning daylight–isn’t that what filmmakers used to say?”

“Yeah. Only I think moonlight’s more fitting in our case.”

“Well, we’re burning something. Get to it, kiddo.”

She got to it.

The Heroics of Interior Design


I can’t fly faster than a speeding bullet. I can’t lift a car. I can’t climb slick surfaces with my bare hands or breathe underwater or stop time. All I can do is change blue things to yellow. I didn’t bother to buy a cape or a spandex suit like the others. I just bought a blouse and some slacks and went into interior design.

I don’t get much business anymore. All the people in this town who liked yellow but moved into the houses of people who liked blue have pretty much hit me up. Blue is a more popular color than yellow anyway. I wish I could change yellow to blue instead. I’ve started doing odd jobs in my off hours. Sometimes I set up a folding table in front of my shop. While the real gifted fly over my building and punt criminals off of rooftops with their shiny boots, I do magic tricks for quarters, blue crayons to yellow, changing the color of children’s snow cones, that sort of thing. No matter how yellow I turn them, they taste like blue raspberry. Last week I did a quick paint job on a car for a few grand. I think it was for a getaway driver. I haven’t told my husband about that one, but I did take him out for a steak dinner.

Tyrone isn’t one of the gifted. He can’t even change things from blue to yellow. He can design skyscrapers though, and he’s good at it, too. He makes a hell of a lot more money than I do, anyway. After Dr. Detriment blew out all the windows on tower number one, he started incorporating sonic resistant glass into his plans. Now all the businesses want him to design their new offices. He just got a big contract with Triumva Corp South. They don’t want their offices to be yellow–I asked. Although, I suppose if they did want yellow, they wouldn’t bother to paint them blue first.